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How to grow a footballer: Joe Iaciofano profile

HE’S the full home-grown hero for Cobblers fans, and has a name that will continue to confound stadium announcers and commentators alike. And what will they come up with for a chant?

For the record, it’s definitely ‘Itch-off-an-oh,’  or to give him his full name, Guiseppe James Iaciofano, known as Joe.

At just 18, Joe has achieved the classic schoolboy dream: a contract as a professional footballer.

But what does growing a footballer involve for a parent?

Joe IaciofanoStriker Iaciofano is the eldest son of Rebecca, a maternity support worker at Northampton General Hospital and Biase, co-owner of popular Northampton restaurant GianBiaz on Wellingborough Road.

He signed a two year contract with Northampton Town FC earlier this year, something he sees as the start of his career; a first step.

For Rebecca and Biase, and their younger sons Tom and Luca, it’s been a first step that’s taken well over a decade.

From scoring his first goal as a two-year -old to being paid full time in League One, family has been at heart of Joe’s journey.

We meet at their Northampton home, just as Joe’s been making his mark in pre-season with a hat-trick against Sileby Rangers and a win in Spain. He’s got a niggle though, in his hip, and thinks he’s going to face being sidelined – and probably loaned out to another Midlands team – before he gets on the hallowed Sixfields turf for a full League One start.

“If you’re injured you still go in, you’re still working,it’s not a doss,” explains Joe. “You go back and if you’ve put on a bit of timber (that’s a few pounds  in weight to those of us over 25), you get found out. If you don’t enjoy working to get fit you’ll never make it. There’s so much talent in the game but it’s ultimately down to attitude and commitment, and that’s where people don’t make it. Managers will say you’re good enough on the pitch but you have to want it.”

So no sitting around on the XBox with your leg up then?

Joe laughs. “No, you have to get in earlier if you’re injured, you get assessed by physios, have to do stretching and cardio, maybe swim, you have to work to get fit.

“A lot of people don’t realise how much you are monitored. We’ve been training all summer and it’s been good. If you train all day, and then decide to go and do some extra shots afterwards and overstretch for one shot and you pull something, you’re going to be viewed as an idiot for over-doing it. So you listen to the experts and learn to know how to work properly.”

And does a contract mean you’re suddenly on loads of money a week? Rebecca and Joe both laugh. No new mansion for mum and dad then?

“No, but it did mean Joe could put some money down on a better car than his old banger,” says Rebecca. He upgraded to a little Audi, (which is a nice car for an 18-year-old), but someone reversed into it in a car park just two days after he got it!

“It’s mostly useful that he can drive, it pays us back for all times we carted him around,” she laughs.

And mum and dad’s transport was always needed, and as any working parent knows, that can be demanding when your children need lifts.

baby JoeJoe’s career started in Abington Park in Northampton, and like so many kids do every Saturday and Sunday, he just wanted to kick a ball about. His first games were with the Soccer Stars Saturday League team at age 7, after starting training with the group for fun at just 4 years old.

Rebecca explains: “He got a goal when he was about two and that was it, it’s all he wanted to do. I’m not sure where this [the football talent] has come from, my dad likes to think it was him but it definitely wasn’t!”

Joe adds: “It came out of nowhere really, I wasn’t pushed, I just wanted to score goals, I wasn’t really aware that it was anything more than being with my mates and having a laugh.”

He was seen by Soccer Stars coaches, Donald and then Alan Codner, who clearly saw something in the little lad who hadn’t even started primary school. And they still watch him and ask after him today.

IMG_4323“We were in the Under Sevens league but I think we were only about five, or six. There were a few of us – James and Dan Hill, Lewis Churcher, Will Salt (who later chose rugby) – we all played together for years and years and still stay in touch.”

He became ill at the age of seven. Really ill.

It came completely out of the blue, and Joe doesn’t like to talk about it. Not because of any underlying trauma but because he’s fed up of the sob-stories that get associated with success, and in his mind, he hasn’t had success yet anyway.

For Rebecca and Biase, who by now had two other very young sons, it was a tough year. She said: “He doesn’t like to talk about it but I think it’s been important to his drive to succeed. He had trials at Aston Villa just after he got better, and he’s absolutely fine now. I think it’s important for people who have children who get ill to know it’s possible to recover, to have no further problems. He had an operation when he was little, and then he got better.

“He basically came home from school at the beginning of term with tummy ache. I thought it was because he’d been moved up a year and he missed his mates, but after a couple of weeks my mum said ‘come on, get him to the GP,’ and they couldn’t work it out and said maybe he’s got an allergy or something. We booked him in with a paediatrician who said: ‘I’d like to send him for a scan, he might have an ulcer or an allergy to wheat.

“I was thinking, oh, it’s the end of the world for an Italian to have a wheat allergy, he loves his pasta!”

Joe went for a scan and doctors found he had an intersusseption [where part of the intestine folds in on itself, requiring immediate surgery] and when they operated they found a tumour.

At this point Joe shifts in his chair uncomfortably: “I don’t want people to pity me, do you know what I mean?”

Rebecca continues: “He was off school for about four months, with a month’s treatment in Leicester.

“I know Joe hates talking about it but it’s important that it’s known that people with childhood illnesses like this can fully recover.

“There are friends who still well-up when they see him today as they remember this tiny little boy with a hat on as he’d lost his hair, and now he’s done what he set out to do and got a professional contract doing what he loves. That’s a strong message. “

How did the family cope?

Rebecca said: “Tom was four and Luca was one. You just kind of go into survival mode don’t you? I think initially we felt like our world had fallen apart. He was such a fit and healthy little boy, he’d never had antibiotics, never had the usual childhood stuff of ear infections or chest infections, barely had a cold, and then he needed an urgent operation.

“Joe knew something was up as his grandmother had been ill, but actually for him it was three months playing Playstation and being brought things.

“He was most bothered about not being able to play football, but as soon as that treatment was over and they said he could play again, he was back on a pitch.”

Joe’s recovery took six months, such is the resilience of children. Remarkably, trials for Aston Villa at under 8s and the Cobblers followed.

“I did one session at Northampton and I didn’t like it,” laughs Joe. He went instead to Rushden and Diamonds.

IMG_4322-2733719830-1504045187931.png“The thing with the trials at Villa and the Cobblers is that I went by myself, not with the lads I’d been playing with every weekend for years, even though I was only eight or nine, and I didn’t like them not being there. At Rushden I went with a few other lads I knew and it felt better. At that age you’re just interested in playing with your mates.

He signed a contract – still at primary school – at R&D’s Centre of Excellence.

By 11 his friends had moved back to the Cobblers, and after scoring against them Joe came back and got a contract at the Cobblers Academy. He started at Northampton School for Boys, a notoriously strong rugby state school, and while he played the oval ball for a couple of years, his passion was always football. He trained twice a week, with a game each weekend, and soon his younger brother Tom was also playing at Sixfields, along with Will Heathfield, another of Joe’s childhood friends who himself chose a different ball, becoming a county-level cricketer.

“My brother Tom eventually chose school, he’s clever, and Will chose cricket. I could have done better at school, I did alright, but the contract came in GCSE year, I just wanted to play football. When you sign a contract for your scholarship at academy level, you sign up to do an extended Btec in sport at Moulton College, as that’s where we train.”

Rebecca proudly shows his certificate: distinctions all round, and unconditional offers for university place at Leeds, Loughborough, Nottingham and Liverpool came in earlier this year.

Rebecca said: “We didn’t know what would happen with football, we wanted to keep his options open. But he’s on a two year contract as of May so he’s got a job instead, along with another childhood friend.

“I met James Goff (Cobblers’ young goalie) at Rushden, and he went to Kettering when I was at Cobblers so I’ve known him for years, and we signed our professional contracts at the same time. “

Do people make a fuss of him now he’s a ‘proper’ footballer?

“My mates, they don’t tell me I’m good, they might take the mick a bit. They’ll tell me if they think I’ve had a bad game. But when I got my contract they were all buzzing. They were all round here within ten minutes of getting home.”

Joe says he’s never felt cocky about his talent. He even winces when I mention the word.

“The way to get the best out of me at the club is not to give me the praise – they kept quiet about my good stuff and told me my faults and there were definitely points where I thought, what do I have to do to get a compliment? But there’s no greater compliment than a contract, and that pressure to do better spurred me on. You can’t sit back and think you’re good. You just can’t. I’m not anything yet.”

If he hadn’t done football? A levels would have been in sports, maths, maybe a science.

“Sport is my only real interest, it’s hard when that’s all you’ve done – no part time job except a bit of the restaurant. A lot of people who drop out early go into the coaching or physio side of the sport and that really is where I’d want to go – if I don’t get to Anfield one day! He might love his home town club, but deep down Joe is a massive Liverpool fan and hopes to play for them if his career continues well in future.

After recovering from his hip niggle, Joe’s been back training at Sixfields. He could still be sent out on loan, as he was last year with Corby Town.

“They want you to play matches but they know you’re not quite ready for League One yet,” he explains. “It is frustrating, as I always feel that I’m ready to go on and do what I do, score goals.

“You’d be surprised at the step up from youth academy to men’s football, when I first went on loan to Corby I wasn’t sure what to expect. Football-wise it got me match experience, which is what I needed physically, but the real experience was learning the dressing room, learning what you needed to do to win games.

“It’s such a reality check that first game you play, it’s tough. If you miss a tackle or don’t go for something 100 per cent they’ll rip you, they will push to get the best out of you. But there’s also a lot of humour and banter, the lower leagues create close teams, good units.”

Prediction for this year for Cobblers? It’s been a shaky start so far.

“Every year you want to win the league, no question. At the beginning of the season you see the hard work that’s been done in pre-season, and hope that you’ve worked harder than other teams. It’s a really strong squad, loads of competition for places, if you’re out of the team someone is going to challenge you for that place so you have to work, and you learn, you just learn all the time.

Sileby Rangers v Northampton Town - Pre-Season Friendly“I’d like to think top ten to playoffs. I think we can come top four but that’s me hoping. There are teams in the league with bigger budgets. It’s a strange league because anyone can beat anyone. It’s not like the Prem when top six will basically stay the same.”

What about eating and going out? He is still a teenager after all, and peer pressure must come into play.

Joe: “I’ve got to the point where I enjoy eating good stuff, there’s too much guilt in eating rubbish. Your body tells you when you’ve eaten badly and if you’ve not eaten right you feel awful and it’s not worth it. I’ll go to McDonalds with mates, but I won’t necessarily eat. I don’t wish I could eat that stuff, it’s never appealed.

“Obviously you don’t tend to drink too heavy, there is drinking, it’s just a fact. One day a week you can go out with your mates, but you have to time it. I train six days a week and play at least one match. But you do get days off. It’s a full time job after all.

My main focus is to stay fit and get picked, whether that’s here or on loan. I’m just starting out. I’m not special yet.”

Cobblers fans will certainly be getting behind their home-grown boy at Sixfields, and will maybe start thinking up an Italian themed chant too . . .

Update: Joe hasn’t gone out on loan yet, and is fully fit. He was finally brought off the bench for Northampton’s 5-4 win on penalties, one of which he scored, against Cambridge on August 29.

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